Apr 03 2009

The Big Squeeze

Thin clients come back in vogue, and this time it's not just hype.

Thin clients come back in vogue, and this time it’s not just hype.

CJ Burton

State and local IT administrators find themselves in quite a bind: Budgets are tighter than ever, and even sensible technology choices invite scrutiny. That’s leading many to cut the fat out of their budgets and also trim their systems.

Bombarded by daily security threats, overwhelmed by help-desk requests and hamstrung by the high cost of buying and managing PCs, IT organizations are giving thin clients a closer look. For many, thin clients offer a way to get a full plate of functionality without high cost or maintenance headaches.

With thin-client computing, much like the old days of mainframe computers, the data center powers the computing functions and stores all the applications and data. Information flows back and forth to thin clients — essentially smaller-footprint desktop devices without hard drives. Less hardware and more functionality equal a more attractive price point. And because the data is housed on a server and apps are stored centrally, data is more secure, and hardware and software become easier to update and manage as well.

For Thomas Williams, assistant director of the Department of Information Services in York County, Pa., those points helped make the case for rolling out a Hewlett-Packard/Citrix thin-client infrastructure.

“When you take the $300 cost of the thin-client unit and then factor in the cost of the Citrix management software and Microsoft license for the office applications, it still only comes out to about $700 per machine,” Williams says. “This is compared to roughly $1,200 for a standard PC.”

Thin clients tend to be less expensive than PCs, and they also last between five and seven years — twice the lifespan of a typical PC. IDC analyst Bob O’Donnell advises that IT departments may have to make an initial investment on the back end to support a thin-client infrastructure, such as buying more servers or adding more server support, but it’s money well spent.

“It’s an offset in that regard, but once you do the math, it works out that thin clients cost less over time,” O’Donnell says.

More Secure, Less Headache

PoE on the Horizon: Within the next year or two, Wyse Technology anticipates having thin clients powered via an ethernet connection.

Thin clients are ideally suited for the government because the technology is affordable, easy to manage, and most important, protects data from theft. Agencies can now equip users with thin-client notebook computers, and if they are stolen, no sensitive data is lost because the data resides on the server.

Williams says York County started with thin clients about five years ago at the county nursing home, which needed a more secure option to comply with HIPAA regulations and more efficiently deliver apps to the staff. The IT staff felt that sensitive patient information was less apt to leak out if they ran networked apps that resided on back-end servers. Another selling point: If a unit were lost or stolen, there would be no data on the hard drive, making it almost impossible for data to leave the network.

Today, about half of the county’s 1,800 desktops are thin clients, spanning the county courts, human resources and the treasurer’s office.

2.8 million: thin-client units sold in 2008.

Source: IDC

“Data is one of the biggest assets governments can have, and they need to get away from leaving data on the local desktop. It’s a security and management nightmare,” says Eric Grayson, vice president of Americas for thin-client maker VXL Instruments. “Servers are very heavily fortified from a security standpoint. And managing everything on the servers is so much easier that from a total cost of ownership picture, it offers a tremendous amount of cost savings.”

And if a thin-client device breaks down, IT administrators can easily swap that machine out and install another one. Users log in, and they’re up and running again quickly. Gone are the days of reconfiguring a new computer by installing or re-installing the operating system, software drivers and apps. According to IDC, IT staff productivity rises by 78 percent, while user downtime drops by 88 percent.

Jeff Meyer, senior systems administrator for Dane County, Wis., plans to deploy ClearCube blade PCs by the end of the summer to support the county’s 911 operation. Blade PCs typically contain their own processors and RAM but offer many of the same centralization benefits as traditional thin clients because they are housed in data centers. “If a blade PC goes down, all I have to do is switch the Ethernet cable from one blade to another on the back end, and the 911 worker is up and running,” says Meyer.

“And if I’m ever home over the weekend and a blade PC goes down, I can activate a spare blade on one of the racks remotely and get workers back up without them having to wait 45 minutes for me to drive in,” he adds.

Williams concurs: “Placing five thin clients on a shelf in case of emergency is much cheaper than five PCs that will require specific configuration and take longer to deploy.”

In U.S. military bases, for example, IT departments have deployed thin clients to thousands of users, from command leaders to administrative assistants, who log in by typing their user names and passwords and swiping their smart-cards. Once signed in, they can access web applications, Microsoft Office and other necessary programs, as well as local printers on the network.

Also, in a post–Sept. 11 world, law enforcement and other government agencies can use thin clients to securely share data. By setting access rights, people with security privileges can access data, but they can’t change or manipulate the information.

Sustainable IT

Tech Tip: Thin clients may have USB ports, but IT administrators can use their thin-client management software to lock down the ports, preventing users from plugging in USB flash drives or CD-ROM drives.

Government leaders are looking for ways to reduce energy consumption and be more environmentally friendly, too. And it turns out that thin clients are far more eco-friendly than PCs. Smaller in size, thin clients consume less energy, have a longer lifespan and require fewer parts, such as plastics, metals and electronics. As a result, thin clients may reduce the amount of hazardous materials that end up in landfills.

According to Forrester Research, a thin-client terminal uses between 6 and 50 watts, compared with a regular PC, which uses 150 to 350 watts. In an organization with 5,000 users, thin-client devices combined with the required server and cooling infrastructure will use 24 percent less energy than a PC environment, according to the research firm. It will also produce 23 percent less carbon emissions.

Thin clients do require server power, but each client uses only 8 to 10 watts on the server.

“It comes down to the electric usage for a PC versus a thin client, and the energy savings can be up to 90 percent,” says Wyse Technology Chief Marketing Officer Jeff McNaught. “A number of organizations are finding funds for technology through larger energy-saving initiatives, and we expect to see even more of that on the government side of things.”

Tim Howell, IT analyst for Hutto, Texas, says, “Everyone’s being asked to reduce energy usage, and we’ve already done that with thin clients.” The fast-growing city runs Microsoft Terminal Services on about 50 Wyse thin clients, mainly V90 or V90LE models. “I’m doing some power tests on PCs versus thin clients to see what the actual savings is in our environment,” says Howell. “Right now it looks to be about 250 percent.”

His PCs typically use between 50 to 75 watts, while the thin clients use between 15 and 25 watts, he says.

Today, no one brashly predicts that thin clients will dominate or completely replace PCs in the corporate computer market. But thin clients will continue to have a strong, steady annual growth rate of about 15 to 20 percent a year, says IDC’s O’Donnell. In fact, by 2010, thin clients will likely make up about 13 percent of corporate desktop computers, excluding notebooks.

Wide Array of Thin Options

Thin-client Manufacturers Wyse Technology, Hewlett-Packard, IGEL Technology and VXL Instruments all offer a large portfolio of desktop and notebook thin-client devices.

Wyse, a leader in the thin-computing space and holder of the first thin-client patent, has more thin clients deployed than any other manufacturer. Its thin-client portfolio supports Linux, Microsoft Windows CE, Windows XP Embedded and Wyse Thin OS. The company offers three classes of thin clients, ranging from a small form factor to one with screens.

HP bought thin-client maker Neoware and bolstered its Linux capabilities in the process. HP supports five popular operating systems and specialty platforms in its thin-client line. It also offers its own line of blade PCs, competing with ClearCube in the blade PC market as an alternative approach to traditional thin-client infrastructures.

IGEL’s thin clients take what the company calls a “universal desktop” approach, allowing clients to simultaneously support multiple protocols for accessing applications and data on servers.

VXL manufactures its own thin clients and can customize its device in a variety of ways for its customers, from changing the software image and ruggedizing the form factor to including peripheral devices, such as smartcard readers and webcams.

Wylie Wong

Peer Review

Small But Strong

Wyse technology’s V10L thin client packs power in a small footprint.

Adam Wilson and Dr. Jeffrey Sheen

Wyse V10L

CDW•G Price: $389.02

Desktop virtualization appeals to IT because it reduces support and maintenance costs. An important component to any desktop virtualization deployment is the device that sits on each user’s desk: the thin client. Wyse Technology’s V10L thin client provides flexibility, power and manageability at an affordable price.

End-User Advantages

The Wyse V10L thin client sports a small footprint, measuring just 1.8 inches wide by 7.1 inches deep and 7.9 inches tall. And because there’s no hard drive spinning or cooling fan, the device operates quietly.

The V10L can incorporate Wyse’s TCX extensions for USB support and enhanced multimedia. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for VDI is the ability to play audio/video files smoothly, because media playback is resource-intensive and server-based computing relies heavily on the thin client’s ability to update display changes quickly. But using the V10L, we’ve actually watched parts of Terminator 3, and the playback looks and feels just like a traditional workstation.

The V10L, with its 800-megahertz Eden processor, also solves one common user complaint: boot time. We have users today who have boot times of up to 10 minutes on their traditional workstations before their machines become usable. A Wyse V10L boots up in seconds.

Why It Works for IT

There are a number of reasons for IT to love the Wyse V10L. First off, there are no moving parts, which are the first to go. It’s possible for a thin client such as the Wyse V10L to last 10 years without significant performance degradation. Try getting that out of a standard PC.

When there’s a problem with the hardware, you just swap it out for another Wyse V10L, and the user is back up and running in no time. There’s very little configuration, and no need to copy over the user’s data or profile; just pull out the old and plug in the new. The Wyse V10L also supports a number of VDI configurations, making it one of the most flexible choices in this changing marketplace.

Wyse V10L thin clients are all centrally managed with the use of very simple configuration (.ini) files. Using a combination of the file transfer protocol (FtP) and dynamic host configuration protocol (DHCP), rapid updates and upgrades can be pushed to the devices.

Wyse V10L thin clients offer energy efficiency, using just 17.2 watts when connected to one monitor, keyboard and PS/2 mouse, whereas a typical workstation averages about 125W.


While the Wyse V10L will provide many of the features one seeks, there are still a few things to keep in mind. The peripheral device support for such things as CD-ROM devices or USB storage is limited out of the box. Wyse’s optional software product, Wyse TCX Multimedia, should be purchased to allow for USB support and for the multimedia enhancements mentioned above.

Even with TCX, multimedia support is still a work in progress. For example, Adobe Flash applications still perform somewhat poorly on the V10L. Not all environments have a need for Flash support, of course, but check to make sure any multimedia applications your organization uses are compatible before you buy.

Finally, some folks will have a hard time adjusting to the idea of not having local storage. Evaluate the culture and perhaps pilot to particular groups to judge user acceptance before diving headfirst into your VDI deployment.

Adam Wilson is a client-side virtualization specialist; Dr. Jeffrey Sheen is the lead enterprise analyst at Grange Insurance of Columbus, Ohio.